Monday, January 26, 2009

Monday's Murmurings

I assume the BBC will not in future screen Party Political Broadcasts since these would compromise its impartiality and we stupid viewers might think that the BBC itself was urging us to vote for a particular party.


A nice man phones me from British Telecom.
He asks why I no longer purchase my telephone calls from them.
I tell him that my Internet Service Provider gives me free UK phone calls without any restrictions.
Do I pay them a monthly fee for this, he asks.
No, I tell him. I pay them nothing, apart from my normal internet fee.
He asks if I am happy with this arrangement. This is a question that almost demands a sarcastic reply but I don't give one because he's only doing his job.
Thank you and goodbye, he says.
As a 'Come back to BT' pitch it has been a dismal failure.

But this is one reason that BT's profits are dropping like a stone and why they are now increasing their line rental charge which we must all pay (unless we use cable), regardless of whether we use BT for our phone calls.

It demonstrates what an absurd mess privatisation of telecoms was.
BT retains a monopoly of the landline infrastructure and the responsibility of maintaining it. But they struggle to compete with other companies on the cost of calls. As they continue to lose customers, we can expect the cost of line rentals to go on rising. Then more and more younger customers won't bother with landlines at all but just use mobiles.

It would be better if the landline network was state-owned and commercial call providers paid a fee to use it. Line rentals could be substantially reduced. They do, after all, impact most severely on those least able to afford them and on the elderly for whom landlines are a lifeline.


Obama has already been condemned by the Vatican.
He must be doing something right, then.


The Mirror recently sent me some discount vouchers. I didn't expect to use them but this weekend they were also giving away free low-energy lightbulbs so I got the Mirror cheap and added four lightbulbs to my growing collection.
There can be little long-term benefit from these promotions by newpapers because most people, like me, will grab the goodies and never buy them again. But it was interesting to see how little the tabloids have changed since Keith Waterhouse wrote his famous book 'On Newspaper Style'.
They still speak a language that almost nobody speaks in real life, in many cases imposed by the space constraints on headlines. So 'friends' are always 'pals', the police always 'quiz' people and 'children' are always 'tots'. In many stories they are 'tragic tots'.

They also have the strange habit in their editorials of writing the final paragraph in italics and underlined. But these days, for many of us, the instinctive reaction of seeing underlining is to reach for a non-existent mouse and click on the link.
But they don't do this on the online version so there the final rhetorical flourish goes unemphasised. That's a pity. So here, with proper emphasis, is an example of the Mirror's wondrous wit and wisdom:

"Having the family pop in to see your new home is a ritual and the Obamas are no different.
Except when the relatives leave the White House, a US President doesn't just have to tidy up - he's got a world to run

How can a humble blogger compete with quality like that? This small gem of insight is only slightly undermined by the fact that a US President doesn't actually have to tidy up and run the Hoover round. Not even a President as down with the people as Obama.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Thank God For Sky And CNN

I criticised the BBC's coverage of the Presidential election and there's now general agreement that it was a shambles, redeemed only by Gore Vidal's tired and emotional spat with David Dimbleby.
The BBC's coverage of the Inauguration yesterday was equally dreadful. I'm amazed that a broadcaster with the BBC's reputation could get it so wrong. It was misjudgement piled on misjudgement.

Some things probably seemed a good idea at the planning meetings.
Let's include a British angle. How people here are reacting to Obama, especially the black community. Let's do an OB from the Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham.
Except that they cut away to Tottenham not long before Obama appeared on the podium. Fearing they might not go back to Washington in time, I had to flick to Sky.
With an event of this magnitude, a broadcaster must stay at the location. By all means switch between different vantage points and do reports from the crowd. But the viewer doesn't want to miss anything and wants the illusion of being there with a ringside seat.

The other massive misjudgement of the BBC correspondents was never to shut the fuck up. There's a time for analysis but it's not minutes before the ceremony starts. That was not the time for Matt Frei to embark on a description of the changing role of the Vice-President over the years.
The golden rule, ignored by the BBC's prima donnas but admirably followed by Sky, is to sometimes shut up and let the pictures and the sound feed speak for themselves.
"Let's just watch this for a while", Sky's Jeremy Thompson would say, or "let's just listen to the crowd for a bit."

Maybe the control freaks at the BBC didn't like having to use pooled pictures, for if you flicked through the news channels the pictures were usually identical. So they kept cutting away to their own OBs and pre-recorded packages.

Like Sky, the CNN gang also knew when to shut up. And one simply has to spend some time with CNN on these occasions if only to see those magical names appear on screen: Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash.
Yesterday they also had a political correspondent called Candy Crowley who complained that she was immediately in front of the Presidential limousine on a flat-bed truck, looking like the Wreck of the Hesperus (an old expression my mother used to use). Perhaps when she agreed to this she misheard the producer's question: 'Are you up for a truck?'

CNN like some technological wizardry on these occasions. One of them this time was an exclusive satellite picture of the events which showed the crowds as a dense grey blur "looking like ants". Given how long we've had satellite pictures, this didn't exactly have the Wow Factor.

The Inaugural Luncheon was a curiously homely affair, resembling a small town Rotary Lunch rather than an historic state occasion. Two old buffers, including Ted Kennedy, collapsed during the meal. This reminded me of the time I addressed a Rotary Dinner and several elderly gentlemen appeared to have died. But, on closer inspection, they were just asleep.
At the end of the meal, Obama and Biden were each presented with a lead crystal bowl. The other guests were all given a souvenir vase (or 'vaize' as it was described.) All that was missing was the thank-you to the Secretary's wife Wilma for the lovely flower arrangements and a request that members give the Treasurer their money for the forthcoming trip to a cheese factory.

The evening (UK time) brought the Inaugural Parade and the thought that Obama is either a very good actor or very weird, either of which are troubling. For has any man ever looked so delighted at watching 637 Marching Bands? And this horror was inflicted on the world soon after the announcement that America would abandon the practice of torture.

I sat up until eleven in the hope of seeing the Gay and Lesbian Band but without success. When Sky said the parade might last another two hours I gave up and went to bed.
The Gay Band were a late addition to balance the participation of a homophobic preacher in the inauguration. But they were probably at the back of the parade, which may well be where gay people will be in the administration's priorities. This little episode is a good example of the 'being all things to all men' school of politics - the skill of the harlot throughout the ages.
But it's early days. For now, let's content ourselves with bashing the BBC.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Historic Moment

It would be pointless to try to downplay it.
The words 'historic' and 'landmark' are unavoidable.
It's something many of us thought we would never see.
The judge in last night's Coronation Street trial was black.

So too were a solicitor and a court official but they could be dismissed as long-established tokenism.
The last judge we saw in Corrie was played by Ken Barlow's real-life wife, which might be considered traditional nepotism. But this one was black with a small beard.
He might even have been Muslim. Indeed, since the defendant John Stape is slightly deranged, I thought that, in a bizarre plot twist, he might have converted to Islam in jail and opted for a Sharia Court.
However, in a Sharia court it would probably have been John's victim, Rosie Webster, who was in the dock for persistently wearing skirts that those more vulgar than me describe as 'pussy pelmets.' And with any luck she'd have been stoned to death. (The first stone, or cobble, being thrown by Blanche who would then settle down to watch the rest of the proceedings whilst knitting a cardigan for Ken).


Over on Channel 4, Heston Blumenthal set about reviving the fortunes of the Little Chef chain. It seemed an appropriate task for someone whose parents named him after a motorway service station - Heston Services on the M4.
(I wrote that joke and then discovered this was true, according to Blumenthal himself. Unless he himself was joking. We'll probably never know. Have any other parents done this? Are there people walking around called Leigh Delamere, Watford Gap or Scotch Corner?)
Anyway, crazy name, crazy guy.
No, literally. Blumenthal is completely bonkers. But he's achieved great fame and presumably wealth by creating publicity-generating dishes like snail porridge and egg and bacon ice cream.
Personally, I'd rather eat an unreconstructed Little Chef breakfast than any of Blumenthal's idiotic, poncy creations.

His Tasting Menu at The Fat Duck includes a seafood course where customers are served a sea shell with an iPod inside it playing sounds of the sea. As any child knows, you can hear the sound of the sea if you put a shell to your ear. You don't need to put a fucking iPod inside the shell.
Blumenthal told us that several customers had literally wept while undergoing the sea shell experience.
Well yes. I think I might weep too if I'd paid £122 for the Tasting Menu (plus up to £165 per person for a selection of wines by the glass) and found myself sitting there like a twat with headphones plugged into an old sea shell.
I think I'd rather take my own iPod along to a Little Chef and feast on their famous microwaved scrambled eggs.
Wearing a shell suit.
And shelling out less than a tenner.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My Problem With Fiction

"These days, a book he [Rebus] disliked was unlikely to last ten pages of his concentration."
- Knots and Crosses, Ian Rankin.

When I was young, I read a lot of fiction. I was mostly working my way through the nineteenth century classic novels - Hardy, Eliot, Austen, Thackeray, etc. - plus some less commonly read authors like Thomas Love Peacock. I also read quite a lot of contemporary fiction. But for many years now I have found novels impossible to read.

Every so often I make another attempt. Sometimes I choose a book by a hugely successful writer, partly to try and see how they do it and partly on the assumption that, whatever its literary shortcomings, it will at least be entertaining. But I always toss it aside after a few pages.
There can be several reasons for this.
If, after a few pages, I don't know who the characters are or where the location is or see the beginnings of a plot, I become angry and abandon the book. I recently threw down an Ian Rankin book because for several pages he failed to explain the relationship of one character to another - wife?, girlfriend?, mistress?, daughter? Oh, for fuck's sake! I don't mind waiting till the last page to find out who the murderer was but when a new character appears I want to know within three paragraphs who they are.

I also have a problem with badly constructed sentences: those sentences you have to go back and read again because the meaning wasn't clear or there was a confusing ambiguity. If that happens more than once, I'm finished.
I don't entirely blame the authors. Everyone writes a bad sentence sometimes. But these people have editors and copy readers. I'm amazed at how much bad writing you find in the books of very successful, highly-respected authors. That's why I get angry: some of these people are multi-millionaires but are ignorant of the basics of their craft. I've never read J.K.Rowling but her former English teacher claims she is one of those people who doesn't know the difference between a comma and a full stop. To put it another way: she doesn't know what a sentence is.

I keep trying again because, much as I love biographies, diaries, social history, politics and science, I sometimes crave the childlike comfort of escaping into another world and being hooked by the plot of a good detective novel. So I've just started reading Ian Rankin's first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses (1987). So far, so good. I think I might even finish this one.
The author, in an introduction written in 2005, is disarmingly frank about this early book's shortcomings. "I was a young man in love with language, striving for a voice and sometimes overreaching."

So it may be unfair of me to criticise the use of language. I do so only because a choice of word or phrase is another thing that can bring my reading to an abrupt halt while I puzzle over the writer's exact meaning:
"Rebus shrugged, feeling a slight sensation of attrition in one of his shoulders."
Don't you just hate it when you get that slight sensation of attrition in your shoulder? The last time I mentioned attrition to my doctor he said "Bless you! But don't sneeze all over my desk."
It's not technically incorrect, as a dictionary will reveal. But it's an unusual usage. So is this:
"He sucked luxuriously on his short, tipped cigarette."
We know what he means here but we have to do an instant translation: luxuriously=deeply. "Sucked luxuriously" seems to have escaped from an erotic novel.

Then there's this:
"The reporter looked interested again. When he was interested in something, his shoulders shivered slightly."
For me, this is far more problematic:

"Puzzled, Lupin went to light a cigarette. Then he remembered he had stopped smoking so instead he sucked luxuriously on a Nicorette inhalator.
''When he was interested, his shoulders shivered."
What the fuck?, Lupin muttered to himself. He put the book down and closed his eyes, trying to visualise a shivering shoulder, symbolic of interest.
It was no good. The body language made no sense.
He tried to recall someone - anyone - whose shoulders had shivered in anticipation of what he was going to say. People sometimes shivered after he had spoken. That was the effect he had on people. He was that kind of guy. Often it was followed by "
Fuck off, you creep." But he'd never noticed any shoulder action.

Lupin moved to the bathroom mirror and experimented with interrogative twitches of his shoulders. But he just looked like a slack Thunderbirds puppet doing an impression of a pimp.
Worse, he was starting to feel a sensation of attrition.
And, at this rate, finishing the book would be a long war of attrition.
Back on page 7, "Rebus shrugged his shoulders."
Still on page 7: "Rebus shrugged again."
Christ! This guy shrugs more times than a Frenchman on speed.
Still, you know where you are with a shrug. A shrug is nice and clear.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

All White Is Still All Right

Yesterday the news was dominated by some mildly injudicious remarks about the economy by a junior Minister.
The big story of the day was almost totally ignored by all media: a BBC West documentary had uncovered racial discrimination in the employment and accommodation sectors on a truly massive scale.
Of 30 employment agencies, all but five agreed to send only white workers for the job. It was all done with a nod and a wink of course, and often an acknowledgement that it wasn't allowed. But they still agreed to break the law. As one woman charmingly put it, she would just send "normal people", i.e., white people.
The figure was less for letting agencies but, even so, more than half (17) out of 30 agreed not to send non-white tenants to view properties.

I've sometimes wondered if I'm guilty of exaggeration in asserting that racism remains deeply-rooted and endemic in our society. But this research (admittedly small-scale and unscientific) does seem to confirm my belief that the political establishment are hopelessly out of touch when they say that racism is a minority problem and that Britain today is a "tolerant" society.

Similar discrimination is found in the B & B and Guest House sector. The laws of 30 years ago removed the 'No Blacks' signs from windows but the discrimination just became covert.
I laughed at the recent rumpus over guest houses being forced to accept gay couples (assuming they could identify them) because they could simply do what they do with blacks - say they are fully-booked. It's incredibly difficult to prove discrimination. If a white a person is offered a room just a few minutes after a black person was refused, the owner simply says they'd just had a phone call cancelling a booking. You have to show a pattern of refusals over a period of time in order to bring a prosecution.
I knew of a guest house owner who always demanded to know the race of prospective clients. If challenged, she would say this was so that she could buy in the appropriate ethnic food to make them feel at home which seemed to show her in a good light. In reality, it was so that she could say 'no room at the inn.'

Can anyone deny that the BBC's findings are vastly more important than Prince Harry privately calling a colleague a 'Paki'?
The only way to reduce the scale of discrimination is to use the equivalent of 'mystery shoppers' to expose it and bring prosecutions. It wouldn't change the underlying attitudes but it might force compliance with the law when word of court cases went round the employment agencies, letting agencies and other sectors.

Link to programme website:

Monday, January 12, 2009

Going for Gold........and Frankinsence and Myrrh

Perusing the Guardian job ads while some eggs were poaching, I was startled to find an ad for a Catholic Olympics Co-ordinator.

I knew that for many years there has been a Gay Olympics but I had no idea there was a Catholic Olympics.
I imagine that the first duty of the Co-ordinator would be to ensure that all athletes are over 16, the Catholic Church having paid out quite enough millions in compensation to abuse victims already.

Beyond that, consideration of the content of a Catholic Olympics conjures up a series of Pythonesque images:
the Stations of the Cross Sprint;
synchronised genuflecting;
throwing the Biretta;
swirling the chasuble;
and the confession-hearing marathon.
Not to mention tossing the altar boy. But in a rare lapse in taste I've mentioned it. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.....

On closer examination - and rather disappointingly - the post is to support the London 2012 Olympics and "build a legacy of sport and faith".
One of the aims is 'evangelisation'. This surprised me for British Catholics are the least evangelical of Christians. Inevitably so, for apart from a few high-profile converts like Anne Widdecombe, it's difficult to be evangelical when you don't believe in most of the unique dogmas of your religion. And that's the case with the majority of Catholics in the developed world.
In any case, one wonders what kind of evangelisation would be appropriate at a secular event like the Olympics, attended by people of every faith and none?

But £35K a year isn't a bad salary to shlepp around the Olympics Village, saying 'Bless you', encouraging competitors to make the sign of the cross on camera and vandalising all the condom machines.

In case you're tempted, you should be aware that a 'GOR' applies to this post: the God-Botherer's Opt-Out Rule. Applicants must be Catholics.
(Actually, that's 'Genuine Occupational Requirement').
Not a problem for me: I was baptised a Catholic. And once a Catholic, always a Catholic, according to the church.
But whilst I could probably hum Faith Of Our Fathers to the interviewing panel, I'd have a bigger problem convincing them I was 'passionate about sport', which is another requirement. A passionate dislike of most sports is probably not what they mean.

Our Little Prince

I was deeply shocked by Prince Harry using the phrase "our little Paki friend" about a fellow soldier.
There can be no excuse for using the patronising term 'little' about a colleague or anyone else. The only possible justification is if the person is of abnormally short stature but even then it might be considered impolite to draw attention to the fact.
In this case, judging by the television footage, the target of the comment was of at least average height.

Harry's usage was similar to that of those ladies who say "I've got this wonderful little man who does my garden" or those football commentators who describe any player under six foot as 'little' - "the little Brazilian striker is proving a handful for the England defence."

I suppose we should make an exception for Mothers: Pam, in Gavin and Stacey, is wont to call Gavin "my little Prince" and Saint Diana may well have employed that expression quite truthfully in Harry's case. My own mother was more likely to have called me a little bastard, though never to my face.

One of the worst aspects of this affair is the stream of gibberish from the rent-a-gobs now infesting the airwaves. On the Today programme, Keith Vaz, MP, has just described Prince Harry as a "role model".
What kind of surreal world does Mr Vaz inhabit that leads him to think that Prince Harry is a role model for the youth of Britain?
Meanwhile, another MP stated that 'Paki' was simply an abbreviation of 'Pakistani' and therefore inoffensive.
Well yes, but 'homo' is an abbreviation of 'homosexual' yet I've rarely heard it used in anything but an insulting way.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

TV: Waterloo Road

Because I'm taking a break from The Bill (largely because they've reverted to bookending each segment with a close-up of a lavatory bowl), for the first time ever I dipped into Waterloo Road, BBC1's drama series set in a comprehensive school.

Waterloo Road is so bonkers that it makes Grange Hill look like a documentary. But it does have something in common with Grange Hill: not even the mildest swear word ever passes the lips of the children, probably because it has a pre-watershed start. And it does feature many kids from the Grange Hill Repertory Company. Where will the BBC find experienced child actors now that Grange Hill is no more?

It has to be said that the kids were far better actors than the adults in Waterloo Road, perhaps because they hadn't yet picked up those repetitive mannerisms to indicate emotion or those corny reaction shots. (By the way, someone needs to tell James Corden to stop scratching his chin with his thumb at times of stress. He does this in every role that he plays. No, he's not in Waterloo Road. Yet.)

For something that aspired to grittiness, Waterloo Road was remarkably sentimental for much of the time, in a To Sir With Love, From Mr Chips kind of way.
The grit was provided by the family from hell, three of whose kids were mixed race - a pleasing detail for racist viewers. Indeed the Kelly kids were half Irish and half Black, giving you more racist bangs for your bucks. And on the subject of bangs, one of the Kelly boys was tooled up - and not for the woodwork lesson. I don't want to come over all Daily Mail but I was uneasy about a scene where a 14 year old finds that a gun can persuade other pupils to literally lick your boots - or trainers, to be precise. And there was no retribution within this pre-watershed episode because he palmed the gun off on his younger brother. The moral of this episode - standing on its own - was that you can have a lot of fun if you take a gun to school.

If a pupil pushes an anonymous note uner the Headteacher's door saying there's a gun in the school, is it standard practice to evacuate the school and call in the Armed Response Unit? I fear that some kid watching this episode will be tempted to find out. Anyway, that's what happened here, with the kids assembled in front of the school, seemingly in the line of fire of the armed police.
What is almost certainly not standard practice is that when a family of kids have wrought havoc on their first day at school, including firing a gun, the Head and her Deputy would instruct them to be at school punctually the following morning. Not sure this applied to the youngest though, who was banged up in a cell and sobbing as the credits rolled.

Lucy, the late florist from Coronation Street who was one of Peter Barlow's two simultaneous wives, turned up in Waterloo Road claiming to have had lots of life experience. Make that death experience, too. For according to Peter Barlow she has died from an unspecified illness. (Actually it was the terminal soap illness of a plot hitting the buffers).
A former Corrie detective was also on the teaching staff, following a short spell as a criminal and supergrass in the The Bill. We saw him getting drunk with Corrie's Denise Welch, who had a famous affair with Kevin Webster. And a trailer for next week's episode showed her being chatted up by Tim Healy, her real-life husband who also fetched up in Corrie not long ago as the father of Sean Tully.
I mention all this because there are thousands of competent actors out of work yet television mostly casts from a small, closed pool of actors. I suppose they want 'a safe pair of hands'. And yet......remember your lines, act when they say 'Action!' and stop when they say 'Cut!' difficult can it be for God's sake? I once dreamed that I had a small part in Corrie, one of the most enjoyable dreams I've ever had. It was terribly easy. In fact, it proved you can do it in your sleep.

Waterloo Road is one of those programmes that leaves you puzzled about the intentions of the writers and producers. Is it meant to be realistic? Is it serious drama? Is it comedy? Is it comedy-drama?
And if it's just badly-written, poorly-acted nonsense, surely the BBC could do something better with the vast amount of money it must cost to produce this series totalling over 20 hours.
Anyone who wants slick, sharply-written entertainment will surely stick with The Bill on the other side, assuming they can stomach those Jeyes Fluid ads. But even those are considerably more credible than Waterloo Road.